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Nuclear Throne is an “action roguelike-like”: a top-down shooter with permadeath, set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and starring a cast of mutants who need to hoover up radiation to gain in power. It’s fast, frantic, and made by Vlambeer, the two-man indie development studio behind similarly compulsive shooters Super Crate Box and LUFTRAUSER.
Nuclear Throne (formerly Wasteland Kings) is currently available in Steam Early Access, and like those other games, it already feels great. “Feel” is a poisonous word in games criticism though, and I was unsatisfied with the normal language used to describe games like this: “meaty”, “weighty” and “crunchy” only gets us so far.
I wrote to Vlambeer game designer Jan Willem Nijman about how you make pixels bullets feel powerful, and about finding a better language to talk about videogames. He was gracious enough to do the hard work of explaining why Nuclear Throne feels great for me. (more…)
VLAMBEER NEVER STOPS. I know. They told me so. Seriously though, Luftrausers isn’t even off the launchpad yet, and the Super Crate Box developer is already making admirable progress on a very impressive-looking action-roguelike called Wasteland Kings. I actually had the chance to play it and discuss its various ins-and-outs with Vlambeer recently, so expect impressions very soon. But until then, know this: it’s a rapid-fire, deliciously crunchy randomized romp starring a cavalcade of characters from Vlambeer’s past. And the craziest part? The arcade action maestros are going to stream a very large portion of its development – with you playing along at home via Steam Early Access.
Ever had one of those days where it feels like the whole world’s out to get you? Like you just can’t win? Like you are a magnet whose polarity is perfectly calibrated to attract gigantic, writhing jerkswarms who will stop at nothing to steal everything you love? Congratulations: you might be Super Crate Box and LUFTRAUSERS (among many, many other things) developer Vlambeer. Between countless clones and a recent theft of what basically amounted to their entire company during E3, the two-man team has been plagued by a string of bad luck so crushing that you’d think it was a giant joke.>
So Rami Ismail and JW Nijman laugh at it. They laugh and count their blessings.>
From Vlambeer, creators of Super Crate Box — well heck, that opening bit alone is convincing enough, but look at the video anyway. Ridiculous Fishing hits iOS on March 14.
It's achievements like that, the gamer community at large seems to have decided, that give achievements a bad name. Developers give them out willy-nilly, and in doing so, these achievements mean less.
Hold up, Super Crate Box developer Rami Ismail says. What assumptions might we be making there about the people playing the game? As a different developer put it on Twitter recently,
Ismail illustrates this point further on his blog by telling us the story of his girlfriend picking up Assassin's Creed 2.
As every gamer knows, it's tough to sit back and watch someone walk into walls endlessly. She did exactly this in her first ten minutes of Assassins Creed II, frustration levels rising slowly to the point where she would just give up and never try again. After minutes that seemed like hours of desperately trying to steer a character straight ahead, she finally succeeded.
I used to argue that just achieving that goal in itself should be an adequate reward to motivate new gamers to continue playing, but I did not take into account that new gamers are fully aware walking should be a trivial tasks; they know that it isn't a tough challenge to walk straight in a game, even if it is fully reasonable for them to find it difficult having never used gamepads before. They realize it is not an accomplishment by any standard and thus the argument fails.
She was already tired of playing and about to quit when the console played that unmistakable notification sound: achievement unlocked.
That sound changed everything. Instead of quitting, she gave the game a few more minutes of her time—the achievement acting as an unobtrusive encouragement tool. That same achievement is one that many of us would receive with an eyeroll even though it's likely that the game in question has its share of respectable achievements meant for us in addition to the easy ones meant for less motivated players.
The constant barrage of morale boosts is something that casual gamers are acquainted with when acquainted with when playing titles "for their demographic." And this is where Ismail gets incisive: maybe that's the point. Maybe we recognize that anybody—even those pleb casual gamers—can get these achievements, and we don't like that.
As I started digging deeper, a realization set in: the problem these people were having wasn't so much with the achievement being too easy to unlock for them – the problem was that others could unlock it just as easily. It's the idea that if a ‘non-gamer' can do it, things can't be an achievement. At best, it's a cry for more challenging games – at its worst, it's an attempt to safeguard the exclusivity of hardcore gaming from newcomers. The underlying thought is simple: achievements are supposed to be for ‘real' gamers.
When you think about how fervent the gaming community can be about the lengths games go to make things accessible for casual gamers, and the sense that the challenge and difficulty in games is something of the past because of that endeavor, the derision of easy achievements makes sense.
Going further, even though "achievement" implies earning something, what that means can vary. For some, it's an achievement just to walk straight. Games marketed toward these folk know that this is the case, and will make all of the achievements easy—like awarding the purchase of in-game items. But it's not too common. You don't even have to get extreme about the example, though, the skill level from one gamer to another can vary. We can't assume that all achievements will accommodate all people, but making them all difficult—or all accessible, even—is typically not the answer.
We intimately know how great small acknowledgements of our actions can be. There's a reason games like to pile achievements, medals, commendations, and level-ups on us—these are things that remind us that we're progressing or that we're being awesome. That feeling shouldn't be exclusive to a small sect of people, and if developers can give it to new players without hindering the overall experience, why shouldn't they? As Ismail notes, the alternative is to put tedious tutorials that explain every. single. thing. to you while playing—and we all know how much that sucks.
There's nothing wrong with easy achievements, really. You get some points for your Gamerscore and are welcome to try achievements that are on your level, and those who aren't skilled in the same ways will feel as if they've earned something—making it more likely that they'll keep playing. Everyone wins—and is that such a bad thing?
An Argument For Easy Achievements [Rami Ismail]
Image made possible by technology ninja
Earlier this week Sony unleashed 20 (mostly) new games on PlayStation Mobile, the new indie game delivery platform for the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation Certified devices. That's a lot of games to take in all at once, so we did it for you.
We played every game available on PlayStation Mobile so you didn't have to, putting the fresh batch of titles through their paces on both the Vita and an Xperia Ion from Sony. Let's see what games are worth your hard-earned pocket change.
Aside from Super Crate Box, of course.
The last word in the title is key. This game is like the classic arcade side-scrolling shooter Defender. Except it stars cats. Who mine. Underwater. For milk. The pixel art is retro. The controls are simple and well-mapped to the Vita's sticks and buttons. This is a good arcade-style throwback, wrapped in an odd but not annoying theme.
The first of FuturLab's two inexpensive PlayStation Mobile apps is a wonderfully simple combination of slide puzzles and music. Each row of every slide puzzle is a track in a piece of electronic music. Complete each line to complete the song, and then move on to the next puzzle. Once you've completed a puzzle you can go back in and shuffle the titles to create your own custom remix. It's simply delightful. I'm not normally one for slide puzzles — I've never been good at them — but this little $.79 app and its 15 puzzles makes me want to get better.
Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment
Price: Free (games purchased in-app)
A selection of five mini and card games that seems geared more towards Vita players than Android gamers, Everybody's Arcade starts (on the Xperia Ion at least) with the trial version of Klondike Solitaire unlocked and four more games — Video Poker, Black Jack, Book Arranging and Pie Throwing — available for $2.99 apiece. The Solitaire is capable enough. The rest? Not enticing enough to spend $2.99 on, that's for sure.
Developer: Spinning Head
Flick Hockey is an incredibly basic version of Air Hockey, the third-favorite game of drunk people in seedy bars next to Pool and tossing sharp objects (hopefully) at the wall. The choices are third-person single-player, top-down single-player or top-down multiplayer. Flick Hockey plays well enough, but there really isn't enough here to get excited about.
Frederic – Resurrection of Music
Developer: Forever Entertainment
Not much has changed from the iPhone release of Frederic – Resurrection of Music, and that's a wonderful thing. Everything that made this wonderfully bizarre piano battle game my Gaming App of the Day pick this past January translates wonderfully to the Vita. One of my favorite rhythm games reaches a whole new audience. Everybody wins!
FuturLab's second bite-sized game for PlayStation Mobile turns planetary atmosphere management into a frantic game of whack-a-mole. Each of the nuclear reactors has to hit the sweet spot at the same time, so it's charge one up, switch to the next and so on until for one brief, shining moment all of them are in sync. This game made my fingers ache. If that's not worth $.49 I don't know what is.
Developer: Laughing Jackal
A PlayStation mini updated with shinier graphics and an enhanced menu system, Hungry Giraffe is essentially a jumper, only instead of leaping from platform to platform you're a long-necked mammal with a twisty neck propelled by snacking on the various treats found in the higher branches. Played with a control stick it's a wonderfully addictive little treat. The touch screen controls, on the other hand, aren't all that good, so Android device users might want to give this a pass unless they play with a controller.
This minimalistic real-time strategy game is a bit too minimalistic for its own good. Tiny barely-distinguishable units do battle in the barren landscape of the human body, infections and antibodies clashing in a concept that's much more interesting than the end result. Contextual menus are barely large enough to be seen under the fingertip required to make them appear. The most expensive PlayStation Mobile game is one of the least playable of the bunch.
Loot the Land
Help Vikings loot, pillage and burn the countryside in this matching puzzle game from the makers of many small games you've probably never heard of. Loot the Land is one of those matching puzzles where you have to trace a line through adjacent resources in order to collect them, quite popular among role-playing adventure hybrids these days. Equipping runestones to unleash special powers and random enemy attacks requiring players to shake or rub the screen to continue break up the standard gameplay. There are better examples of the game type available on mobile phones, but there's nothing quite like it on the Vita.
They had me at "the company that brought you Xi[sai]", a PlayStation puzzler that devoured many an hour back in the day. Magic Arrows is a color-matching game in which players slide blocks to form groups of three or more. The trick here is that the blocks have arrows, and can only move in the direction the arrows indicate. It's nothing revolutionary — certainly not on the same level as Xi, but it's entertaining enough for extended sessions of mildly frantic matching goodness.
Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.
Match blocks. Blocks disappear. Old story, new version: the blocks have numbers on them and the numbers tick up when a cluster of four of them are brought together. So rotate a bunch of blocks, make a 2X2 cluster of blocks with 3's on them. Let them tick up to a 2x2 of 4's and, if you're good, you'll have two other 4's nearby to meet them and make a bigger combo. Confused? Then we won't say any more about the angel and bear who flank the playing field. Tricky game, but worth a try if you're a Tetris Attack or Bejeweled Twist kind of person.
Developer: Zener Works
The game makes you feel like you're looking down a microscope in Biology 101, but is less fun. You're controlling a little tadpole or sperm-looking thing, knocking shapes into the perimeter of the playfield. Sometimes, the pull of gravity seems to change. Pass.
Developer: PomPom Software
This new effort from Mutant Storm developers PomPom Games makes most of the other PSM launch games seem undercooked. You control a prisoner who must run around an island avoiding cannons, tanks and other enemy apparatuses airdropped to shoot him and capture him. Initially this is just a game about running to survive, but the twists emerge as you learn that you can trick enemies into shooting each other—and that you can level up. This one proves the value of having an analog stick on a mobile game.
A lone samurai battles waves of rhythmically attacking enemies to the beat of a funky synth soundtrack in this compelling take on the rhythm game from the fine folks at Beatnik. It's tapping your fingers to the beat with purpose, and it's incredibly cool. It's also, unfortunately, rather stark in terms of options and extras. Beatnik had to rush the game out the door in order to make the PSM launch, but promise plenty of updates and enhancements are on the way. Grab it at $.99; I've a feeling the price won't be that low for long.
Super Crate Box
This indie favorite from Vlambeer lets you control a little guy who jumps on platforms and shoots bad guys. Sounds generic, plays extremely well… plays way better with sticks and buttons on a Vita or other device similarly armed with physical interface, than it does with virtual controls on a touchscreen.
A find-the-path puzzle featuring a tree-seeding tractor building orchards, Tractor Trails is one of those games that sneaks up on you. It starts off slow and simple but rapidly ramps up the difficulty, challenging players to navigate twisting trails in a time cautious manner. 100 levels of puzzles await those craving a more cerebral sort of puzzle play.
Developer: Crash Lab
One of the prettier PlayStation Mobile games, Twist Pilot is a simple affair involving navigating a spinning ship through twisting levels, navigating narrow obstructions, avoiding enemies and utilizing conveniently-placed power-ups in order to make it to the goal. It's easy to pick up and hard to put down, and with 72 levels (and more on the way) there's no real reason to put it down any time soon.
Developer: Albino Pixel
Underline doesn't break any new ground in the word-find genre. Like lots of other titles in the category, it gives you a grid filled with randomized letters and challenges you to make words under different sets of rules. It's got power-ups that freeze the trickle of letters or ones that jumble up the grid. But the release from the Albino Pixel dev studio also has a big control problem. Selecting letters to chain together by touch just isn't precise enough. The lettered discs are too small to allow for 100% accurate input and the grid is too tight to let your finger roam without hitting a letter you didn't meant to. I got frustrated far too many times sliding my finger across the Vita's screen over and over again trying to make words that weren't forming. This problem could've been alleviated by allowing for options that let you use the device's physical inputs to control the game. But, bafflingly, such options don't exist. A word game that won't let you spell is no good to anyone. Underline is a skip in PlayStation Mobile's first wave. Word nerds are going to have to wait for a better lexicon game to show up.
Ever want to clear a lot of tables? This game lets you live the dream by clearing not one but a whole restaurant full of tables, one finger-swipe across a grimy surface at a time. Despite being about table-cleaning, this is really just another plate-spinning game, challenging you to clear tables before they get too dirty and a timer runs out. You get bonus points for combo-cleaning. The graphics are rudimentary; the controls not always responsive. Underwhelming.
An interesting twist on the word builder, Word Blocked places the letters used to show off your vocabulary on a Rubik's cube. Twist it, turn it, and tap adjacent letters to form words. Earn enough points and a row of letters changes, keeping the hunting and pecking alive. If you're into word building it's definitely worth a go.
That's it for the initial batch. Sony plans on rolling out fresh titles every week, so if you don't see anything on the list that tickles your fancy don't fret; there's bound to be something better coming down the line.